On the 8th of August the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA) made a Freedom Of Information request to the Department of Work and Pensions, asking in details but seeking in general how many ESA claimants Atos Healthcare had assessed since the nationwide roll-out of the Incapacity Benefit transition to Employment Support Allowance 'began in April'. They did this because they are the contractors for government welfare to work programmes, namely the Work Programme and the almost completely unpublicised Work Choice (hint: they park all the most difficult cases on this in some desperate attempt to not let the Work Programme fail as badly as Flexible New Deal did). The context is that the prime contractors have taken a lot of heat recently because they are squeezing the sub-contractors and not referring clients to them. The indication is that the prime contractors themselves aren't getting enough referrals to cover their costs through the initial referral fees, so they wanted to know why the ESA Work Related Activity Group from which many of their 'clients' will come from isn't being filled up by the 1.4 million Incapacity Benefit claimants who should now be being transferred onto ESA.
On the 23rd of September, the DWP published their response to the request. This, surprises me but will be the subject of the next post (the request failed, yet still gave the ERSA the answer they were wanting). The figure totalled 56,000 claimants assessed, although caution *must* be used as this is based on incomplete sampling according to the DWP. However, the fact that they gave the figures at all (for England, Scotland and Wales, from which the ERSA produced the nationwide total) means these are at least a partially accurate estimate. It is unclear also what the period covered is, only that it begins in February, on the 28th. I will assume that the period is from the 28th of February to the 1st of August: five full months in which 56,000 are considered to have had a Work Capability Assessment, although the DWP clarifies that this actually includes people who have only had a 'paper assessment' and even those who refused to be assessed but a recommendation was given. We have no idea how many as a proportion were actually assessed by Atos, but the ERSA takes it as given that 56,000 were. Their actual press release states:
"A recent Freedom of Information request indicated that Atos has completed only 56,000 Work Capability Assessments since the commencement of the full national roll out in April."
I am not sure why they cite April as the starting date, especially as the DWP response to them makes it clear it was February. I think they are confused because April is when they were named as preferred bidders for the Work Programme, which ironically had the April 1st (and I thought it was an April Fools joke) press release falsely claiming the Citizens Advice Bureau was going to be a sub-contractor. Perhaps they thought ESA was designed purely to meet their needs and if so, where do you think they got that impression? The Work Programme itself started in June.
But the number they squeeze out of this matters; it's 56,000 assessments in five months, which is 11, 200 per month. That is the amount they were expecting each week, not each month after the IB-ESA transition started. They really wanted those WRAG referrals. So how has Atos been doing? Well I looked at the DWP tabulation tool for each month as far back as the ESA phase of claim data went (pitifully if you remember, the detailed data only went back as far as February 2010) and looked at those Assessment Phase claimants under 3 months, then at the 3-6 months Assessment Phase claimants for the quarterly period afterwards to see by what margin it had been reduced. The results were:
February-May 2010: 59,050
May-August 2010: 61,640
August-November 2010: 98,210
November-February 2010/11: 35,950
February-May 2011: ???? (to be published)
From the FOI request:
February-August 2011: 56,000 (with twice as many months, and 1.4 million bulk referrals from Incapacity Benefit)
Then I averaged these figures out as they were quarterly, into monthly averages for each quarter. It looks like this:
February-May 2010: 19,683
May-August 2010: 20,546
August-November 2010: 32,736
November-February 2010/11: 11,983
February-May 2011: ????
February-August 2011: 11,200
Now aside from the huge spike between August and November 2010, there appears to be a definite drop in the number of people that have left the Assessment Phase. It's possible a clerical error accounts for this and the August-November spike has 'borrowed' half of November-February's claimants but when held next to the figure from the FOI request it starts looking really suspicious. Less like cock-up and more like design. Why are Atos doing less assessments rather than more? I'm cautious about speculating here because Atos are paid per assessment. How much does Atos earn per assessment?
Well if we take those numbers from February-May 2010 all the way to November-February 2010/11 and add them up we get 253,950 but keep in mind that this figure includes an uncertain number of people who have not actually had a WCA. Atos are widely reported to receive £100 million per year from the WCA contract, divide this by 250,000 and it comes to them being paid £400 per assessment. That seems quite high, especially as I'm not sure even the DLA interviews cost the DWP that much (also done by Atos) and they are 3-4 hours long, not 20 minutes to an hour like WCAs usually are.
It seems obvious that the only way Atos can be making £100 million a year by hitting their assessment targets is if they are filling in forms wrong; saying one thing on the form to be used for statistical publication (which keeps the Assessment Phase group fattened so they can be assessed again) and then something else entirely on the forms that get them paid for the assessment. When the IB-ESA transition began their caseload and assessments should have gone up, as they were predicted to by the government. They probably have, but it isn't showing on paper because somewhere in the system outright fraud is being committed and still I can't get anyone else to look into why more than half of all ESA claimants are in the Assessment Phase. Instead the number of assessments on paper seem to have dropped massively.
Case File 6# finds that to get to the bottom of this requires information which is exempt from Freedom Of Information requests, specifically that which is commercially confidential: the actual number of WCAs administered by Atos, how much they are paid per assessment, why the inconsistent rate of assessments across quarterly periods, why they have apparently gone down rather than up in time just before and months after the IB-ESA transition began and also...
Why were the ERSA not stone-walled like virtually every charity and campaigner has been by the DWP under guise of 'commercial confidentiality'? Their FOI request technically failed, yet the DWP did so much to accommodate them that it actually gave them the best available figure to work with. Why is there one rule for special commercial interests like welfare to work providers and another one for everyone else? I will examine this in a further blog-post.